The age when we become less creative and the reason why

Virginia Woolf; Photo: George Charles Beresford / Wikipedia / Public Domain

“And I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room; and I can’t, and instead I shall write down the reason why I can’t—this diary being a kindly blank-faced old confidante. Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer. I’m out of fashion: old: shan’t do any better: have no headpiece: the spring is everywhere: my book out (prematurely) and nipped, a damp firework.”

Those are the frustrated musings penned in the diary of Virginia Woolf, a little more than a year before she published a novel destined to incite an era of literary excellence. This entry quickly came to mind after reading a new report out of Ohio State University that examines the life cycles of Nobel Laureates. Conceived by two economic professors, David W. Galenson and Bruce A. Weinberg, the paper motions that the vitality of an individual’s creative spark is governed by the discipline the said individual occupies in addition to whether or not they employ a conceptual appraisal of output or an experimental one.

The authors write, “Experimental innovators work inductively, accumulating knowledge from experience. Conceptual innovators work deductively, applying abstract principles. Innovators whose work is more conceptual do their most important work earlier in their careers than those whose work is more experimental. Our estimates imply that the probability that the most conceptual laureate publishes his single best work peaks at age 25 compared to the mid-50 s for the most experimental laureate. Thus, while experience benefits experimental innovators, newness to a field benefits conceptual innovators.

Weinberg and Galenson first examined the daylight between these two ideologies against age dynamics by analyzing 31 Noble Prize winners in the field of economics; noting that those decorated for their innovations when they were in their 40’s or 50’s were invariably experimental thinkers, while those awarded at the age of 25 or younger were routinely conceptual thinkers. The reasoning was comparably sound.

Experimental thinkers

The first novel I ever read of Woolf’s was her first one, The Voyage Out.  It’s an inspired debut, but it’s also regarded by some to be the closest to conventional of all of the submissions that comprise her bibliography. Jacob’s Room, on the other hand, is a through and through exercise in high-minded experimentation. The titular protagonist is sketched via the anecdotes and perspectives of the novel’s supporting characters; a central hero wrought primarily of memories and tertiary perspectives, each introduced like prismatic feathers decorating its brisk 525-page span. As correctly noted by acclaimed novelist, Mark Haddon, the idiosyncratic hallmarks that lengthen Woolf’s legacy at once alienate her passionate votaries.

“It took me a long time to learn to read Woolf,” Haddon told The Wall Street Journal. “She jumps between the perspectives of her different characters, sometimes in a single sentence. The effect can be dizzying for a first-timer.”

That seems to be the outlay of innovation. Those privileged enough to graduate from “always hitting the targets”  to “always hitting the targets that no one else can see,” are rewarded either posthumously or after the privilege regresses into a liability. To the same point, commentators are always eager to explore the relationship shared between ingenuity and madness but rarely do we get a peak into the liaison shared between ingenuity and time, which is why the new study published in the journal De Economics is so compelling.

The postulation posited by the author locates Woolf’s genius solidly in the experimental, alongside Charles Darwin, and Vincent Van Gogh. These three are segregated by discipline, but linked by latent eurekas.  A Room of One’s Own, The New Dress, Mrs. Dalloway, and Jacob’s Room —easily some of Woolf’s most celebrated works, were all written when she was middle aged. On the Origin of Species, the veritable seed to evolutionary science’s global bloom, was published when Darwin was 50 years old.  Similarly, the single most recognized figure of the post-impressionist movement spent his youth fighting phantoms and chasing the cloth. Van Gogh’s wonderfully elegiac masterwork, Starry Night, didn’t come to him until a year before his death, as he dissolved before the eastern window of Saint Remy.

Conceptual thinkers

The conceptual thinkers evidence just the opposite of this trend. Think Albert Einstein, who began developing his special relativity theory at the peppy age of 26. Or Rebecca West, who had made such a stately impression on the literary community as a polemicist by the age of 24, even the well-documented scorn of Bernard Shaw had to cow to its existence, while Woolf made a point to defend the young battler against a quasi-Victorian era that aimed to brand her a tasteless provocateur. Conceptual thought is energized by a youthful itch to uproot systems. Civilians and pundits on both sides had trouble making sense of ‘There Is Only the Fight…’: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model,” when it was first made available to the public, especially in light of the pragmatic policy prescriptions then synonymous with its author.

The contrast is not always received as dramatically as the preceding citations would imply. However received, an iconoclastic worldview is best articulated by someone with clear and passionate objectives. The Sun Also Rises is so impactful because 26-year-old Hemmingway had so much to say, the same is true of Ariel and Me Against the World. Conversely, meaningfully implementing the unconventional requires expertise in the conventional, which takes time to develop.

Experimental creators acquire knowledge over the course of their careers until they reach an age wherein they can properly perverse their interpretation of this knowledge. The mechanisms are a little more abstract in these instances. Nothing of consequence really happens in Jacob’s Room, but the manner in which nothing happens is objectively consequential.

There also appears to be an adverse interpretation to consider if we invite instances of stream crossing into the appraisal. A recent paper previously covered by Ladders and published by MIT economists found that the volume of pioneering literature increases by more than 8% following the death of a field’s respective leading scholar.

When an individual becomes an established authority within their discipline, they grow decreasingly tolerant of foreign ideas, so when they pass away a freshet of individualistic takes flow into the dialectic. This is observable in any industry.

The prominent voices that manage to evade the reaper rarely retain their creative mettle into their silver years. Some blame prolonged success i.e Don’t think twice could only be composed on a $20 guitar. Although Daniel Johnston, an artist that infamously never achieved financial recognition, remained brilliant up until his death earlier this year, Fear Yourself isn’t quite Yip Jump Music.  There are plenty of examples that defy the wealth premise, which means a categorical answer must also be a psychological one.

“There is a systematic relationship between age and scholarly creativity, but it is more complex than the typical view or that in the existing literature,” the study reports. “The evidence furthermore reveals that the path a scholar follows is related to the nature of his work and that there are only very slight systematic changes in the nature of a scholar’s important works over the life cycle. This understanding of the life cycles of innovative economists constitutes an important step toward a theory of human creativity in general.”

There are nutrients to be obtained for us non-geniuses, too. Age and circumstance are two of many tragic barriers that sit between the layman and creativity. If we’re not breaking our necks looking up at the deities of expression, we’re spending our lives actively trying to escape their influence.

I’ll concede that the conceptual and experimental thinkers occasioned above were exceptional on both a technical and intuitive level, but neither are required to forge work of meaning. I think it’s a beggar’s belief that you have to read a thousand novels before you can write one good one, or be 21 and bi-polar to create a compelling punk album. George Orwell is one of literature’s giants because he was so insistent on his mortal pedigree. He was just a guy that had the patience to sit among uncomfortable things until the session became fruitful; a process that yielded Down and out in Paris and London, when he was 30, and again when he penned his prophetic masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the age of 46.

Age certainly has things to say about what and how we create, but its declaration is instructive as opposed to cautionary. To those who aim to subvert conventional wisdom, youth is a catalyst. To those who aim to augment conventional wisdom, the very same is a blockade. To frame it more neatly, we can bend yet another excerpt from the meditations of The Goat: “The older one grows, the more one likes indecency.”